12 years ago I sat on a beach in a far off foreign land, doodling in a journal and sketching out a life long bucket list of adventures. At the top of that list – cycling the Cabot Trail. For years I dreamt about this quintessential Canadian cycle trip while steadily diving more into cycle touring and testing out trails and routes throughout North America, Europe and beyond. Who knew it would be over a decade since writing in that journal that I would finally spin my wheels on this amazing route; it was certainly worth the wait.
The Cabot Trail is a 300 km paved road that forms a loop around Cape Breton Island on the far northeastern shores of Nova Scotia.
Type in best cycling routes in Canada and the Cabot Trail will top most lists; and it deserves this recognition. Sweeping ocean views, cliff side coastal riding, picturesque Maritime towns dotting the landscape; this ride has so much to offer, here are 5 of our favourites from the Cabot Trail.
Let’s just get right to it. There are some serious hills on the Cabot Trail. And by hills I mean mountains. Three of the biggest mountain passes along the route are French, Mackenzie and Smokey. The grades of these climbs can reach (and sustain!) 13% and the entire climb can be over 15km to the top. That is a leg burning, lung screaming climb! Over the entire route there is a gain of over 3800m. Add in panniers weighing close to 50 pounds plus a 25 pound dog trailer (luckily empty as Bodhi was happy to walk beside the bike on his cycle leash up the hills) and we were moving slow. Many times I would glance at my bike computer to see the speed hovering around 4km/hr, just barely fast enough to keep the bike upright! The only thing that kept me pedaling at times was knowing (hoping!) that my legs were stronger than my arms and there was no way I was pushing my bike up these climbs.
So what made these massive hills top our list of favourites? The climbing gave us time to slow down, to let our thoughts turn to daydreams and to take in the amazing colour of the trees surrounding us (more on that below!). And that feeling of accomplishment when you crest the hill after (literally!) hours of climbing and your legs are burning from the lactic acid build up, your bike is almost toppling over because you can barely get another pedal rotation in….well, as a cyclist who loves hills, it doesn’t get much better than that!
Tips for the Hills
- New or newish brake pads and excellent working brakes (for the screaming downhills!)
- With heavily loaded bikes we were very happy to have a full set of gears ie: a granny gear
- Clockwise around the Trail the hills are more sustained but less steep
Another bit of greatness to climbing hills, the outstanding views at the top. Views of the rocky maritime coast, white-capped waves, green rolling hills; we couldn’t get enough of it.
Tips for the Views
- There is much debate about which direction around the Trail affords better views. We rode clockwise, so although we were always on the inside of the road, we never felt as though we were missing out on any views not being cliff side. (Also the hills aren’t as steep heading clockwise (see above!)).
- Some of the best views come while ripping around the corners on the downhills (by “ripping” I mean squeezing my brakes as tight as possible). Take the time to stop at a pull out to enjoy.
15km down a rolling, windy route north of Cape North off the official Cabot Trail leads to a gravel road; a hilly gravel road. 13km down this road is Meat Cove; a tiny, isolated, end of the road type village. Before our trip we had contemplated whether we should take the significant detour to Meat Cove. After hearing amazing tales from a friend of her time spent in this hamlet, we added an extra day to our trip to cycle there. It took 2hrs of hard cycling (loaded bikes and gravel roads aren’t always the most fun) and it was near dusk as we rolled in. The whole place was eerily quiet and ruggedly beautiful. We felt like we had stumbled on to our own little secret spot.
So yes, we would certainly recommend, if time allows, go to Meat Cove, enjoy the quiet and that ‘end of the world’ feel.
Tips for Meat Cove
- In early October there are minimal amenities in Meat Cove, which is part of its allure. When we cycled through it appeared nothing was open. We passed one small lodge on the way in that looked closed and the campground in town was also closed. The friendly campground owner agreed to let us pitch our tent for the night as we were arriving in the dark but there was no running water from the taps or food available. We met other cyclists who befriended some hunters who allowed them to pitch a tent on their porch. So! If you are cycling in off season-come prepared!
- A 28km detour may not seem like much but remember almost 1/2 of this is on a gravel road. Allow ample time and ensure your bike tires are up to the task of some hard gravel.
Cabots Landing Provincial Park
If you are taking the detour north to Meat Cove (which we highly recommend, see above!) you will cycle right past Cabots Landing Provincial Park. We almost missed the small sign directing us off the road but, hungry and wanting a break, we decided to have a look. And so grateful we did! The small road and grassy park dotted with picnic tables soon gives way to a beautiful golden sand beach stretching along Aspy Bay with views out towards the Atlantic.
Besides a few fishermen at the far end of the beach we had the park to ourselves on a beautiful sunny afternoon.
Tips for Cabots Landing Provincial Park
- Is it worth taking the detour off the Cabot Trail to see Cabots Landing Provincial Park if you aren’t going all the way to Meat Cove? If you have some extra time while cycling in that area and have some extra energy in your legs I would say yes. It is a 10km cycle from Cape North to the park on a paved road with not too much hill climbing. The park would make a great midday stop for a picnic and some lounging in the sand.
- The sign for the park is small! Stay particularly focused around 10kms north of Cape North.
We chose to cycle the Cabot Trail in October in hopes of quieter roads, stable weather and our pick of campsites. We got all that and a kaleidoscope colour! Eastern Canada and the US are famous for their fall colours, there is even a subculture of tourists called “leafers” or “leaf peepers” who specifically plan driving vacations around this time of year to view the colours.
Reds, golds, oranges, purples, an entire spectrum of greens, the colours dazzled us every single day.
Tips for enjoying the Colours
- We cycled the Cabot Trail during the 1st week of October. The colours were outstanding, especially along the east side of the Trail.
- Although the roads were fairly quiet during the weekdays, over the weekend days there were lots of “leafers” driving the Trail. Be prepared for slow-moving cars, sudden stops and quick pull overs by somewhat distracted drivers.
- For a different view of the colours we took a day to hike in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Franey Trail was an excellent choice for us. A 7.5km loop with sweeping views of the Atlantic coast from the top.
The hills, the views, Meat Cove, Cabots Landing Provincial Park and the rainbow of colours, our 5 favourites from a fantastic cycling trip. The Cabot Trail deserves to be on every cycle tourists list of ‘must-do’s’!
- Cycle Nova Scotia has a map of the Cabot Trail which can be downloaded including route notes. We were able to obtain a paper copy by contacting the tourist office of Nova Scotia. There are GPS files on this site too for the route
- We were lucky to have sunny cool weather for the entire trip and therefore able to camp every night. As it was October and considered lower season we did not book any of our camping except our first and last night stays in Baddeck. We stayed at the following:
- Baddeck Cabot Trail Campground:
- Very large and popular in early October. Has all the amenities needed in a campground and they allowed us to leave our car there for a week.
- Cheticamp Campground-Cape Breton Highlands National Park:
- Big campground, treed sites but not too much privacy. Visitor centre on site.
- MacIntosh Brook Campground – Cape Breton Highlands National Park:
- Small campground with an open area for tents. Large enclosed cook shelter. We had this place completely to ourselves
- Meat Cove Campground:
- Situated right at the tip of Meat Cove – big open unsheltered areas for tenting with huge views of the ocean
- ***Nova Scotia Tourism lists this campground on their website as being open until October 31. We arrived in early October and it was completely shut down. Thanks to the very nice owner we were allowed to pitch our tent for 1 night. Best to call ahead****
- Broad Cove Campground-Cape Breton Highlands National Park
- Another very large campground with direct access to the coast
- 1/2 full when we arrived in early October
- Cabot Shores
- Large open tenting area, room for numerous tents
- Not much privacy but only 1 other tent when we were there
- Peaceful setting next to Indian Brook river
- Friendly owners/ Bistro & other accommodation available on site
- Baddeck Cabot Trail Campground:
- Most websites will say this route can be cycled May to October
- We cycled in early October:
- warm days (10-15 degrees celcius) and cool mornings and nights
- Only 1/2 day of rain in 7 days of cycling (forewarning-Hurricane season runs between June and November in Nova Scotia. Hurricane Matthew was right on our heels and hit the Nova Scotia coast the day after we finished cycling).
- Hike Bike Travel: has a guide that can be downloaded with suggested itinerary, non camping accommodation suggestions and other sightseeing ideas
- TravellingTwo: 9 tips for cycling the Cabot Trail (see Tip 7-they also suggest Meat Cove! although sadly the campground restaurant was not open in October to enjoy the chowder)